Ashley Isham celebrates Malay culture with latest collection

He is, arguably, Singapore's most famous Malay fashion designer, but Ashley Isham (photo), known for his crepe jersey draped gowns in rich jewel tones, had never ventured into traditional Malay costumes - until now.

Last week, the London-based womenswear designer, who has been showing his collections at London Fashion Week since 2003, launched his first line of baju kurung in time for next month's Hari Raya Puasa.

Called Tradisi by Ashley Isham, the nine-piece made-to-measure capsule collection, priced from $420 for a modern kebaya Pahang in organza and satin to $650 for an embroidered abaya or long-sleeved floor-length gown, is available at Boutique by Ashley Isham at 02-27 Orchard Central. The word "tradisi" is Malay for "tradition".

A ready-to-wear version of the line, priced from $280 for a modern kebaya top with a batik-print skirt, will be launched next week.

"It took me about 18 months to research and perfect the cut before I decided that I was ready," says Ashley, 34, in a phone interview from London. "My mother and sisters have been asking me to do this for a while and I finally gave in early last year."

He was also encouraged by the requests of his Malaysian clientele, who include royalty and wealthy housewives, for modern interpretations of traditional Malay costumes which they can wear to formal events and dinners.

Ashley also credits top Malaysian model Tinie Bibbaby for pushing him to launch Tradisi. The mother of two is also the campaign model for the collection.

"Honestly, I was very afraid of doing this collection because there are specific traditional and cultural design elements that I had to respect and adhere to."

For instance, each look must retain a sense of the conservative and not be too revealing or too figure-accentuating, he explains.

To get the right cut, Ashley, who was born Eshamuddin Ismail, turned to his muse and mentor - his mum - for guidance.

He recalls: "I consulted her every step of the way. She is a retired seamstress and used to make baju kurung and kebaya for Hari Raya. She showed me her old pieces and I studied the way each was cut and designed."

A self-professed perfectionist, the only boy among three siblings went through at least six toiles, or test garments, each before arriving at the final looks.

"The one thing my mum told me to remember when it comes to designing baju kurung and kebaya is that it has to be 'sedap'," says Ashley, with a laugh. His mother, housewife Madam Rokiah Abu, 62, was referring to the colloquial Malay term for describing a garment that fits perfectly and is comfortable to wear.

While "sedap" officially means "delicious'' or "savoury", it is also widely used to describe something that feels good.

The bottle-blonde designer, who graduated from London's prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and London College of Fashion, maintains that his Tradisi designs are, in no way, old-fashioned. To him, it is the silhouette that makes a look contemporary.

He says: "I saw this as an opportunity to bridge my Western design knowledge with the traditional Malay aesthetic."

So, for example, eschewing the traditional loose fitting long-sleeved top made from cotton or silk, his version is more form-fitting and has an organza overlay for a tasteful peek-a-boo effect. The addition of on-trend details, such as peplum, to some tops also modernises the look. And his signature crepe jersey, when used on skirts, creates a more elegant drape for a fitted silhouette. While he wants Tradisi to be an on-going collection produced throughout the year, Ashley says he is not going to neglect his eponymous main line.

Last February, he showed his fall/winter 2013 collection at London Fashion Week.

Despite not having a physical store in London - it closed in 2009 - his designs are stocked in more than 15 multi-label luxury boutiques across the Middle East, including Bugatti in Dubai, Mahat in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Noramina in Kuwait City. In London, his designs are available for viewing by appointment only at his studio in St.Albans Place.

"I'm also working to launch an online store on my website for the designs shown during London Fashion Week in February. As my customer base is so wide, it is easier for me to reach out to them online," he says.

He is also busy designing for private clients in Europe and has been invited to show at the Islamic Fashion Festival later this year. Launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2006, it is a biannual event which showcases Islamic fashion from top regional designers and is held in different cities each time. This year's second showcase will be held at Windsor Castle in London.

For now, Ashley hopes that Tradisi will take off among the Malay Muslim community. Eventually, he hopes the line will find an audience in the Middle East as well.

He says: "After 14 years of being in the industry, I feel now is the right time to go back to my roots.

"I may have been living in London since 1995 but that does not mean I have forgotten where I came from. I still love my sambal belacan."